Progress made, but Western wildfires bring poor air quality across US; record fire burns amid drought in Hawaii

03 August 2021

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USA – The Bootleg Fire in Oregon was up to 84% contained on Monday as firefighters made progress over the weekend battling the blaze, which is the nation’s largest at 646 square miles.

Elsewhere, authorities canceled evacuation orders near the Dixie Fire in Northern California and another on Hawaii’s Big Island.

Despite the good news, authorities warned that with unpredictable winds and extremely dry fuel across the West, the risk of flare-ups remained high over the next few days. In addition, while predicted thunderstorms in many areas could bring welcome rainfall, the storms could also cause flash flooding.

Spots left barren of vegetation by the rash of wildfires throughout the West are especially prone to flash flooding when pelted by heavy rainfall.

Flash flood watches were in effect for mountainous areas of seven Western states, from Montana to New Mexico, the National Weather Service said.

Nearly 22,000 firefighters and support personnel were battling 91 wildfires covering 2,813 square miles in mostly Western states, the National Interagency Fire Center said.

California’s Dixie Fire covered more than 390 square miles in mountains where 42 homes and other buildings have been destroyed. The fire was 35% contained Monday, and evacuation orders and warnings had been lifted for several areas.

Dry conditions and powerful winds made for dangerous fire conditions in Hawaii. A wind advisory had been issued Sunday for portions of Lanai, Maui and the Big Island.

A fast-moving wildfire on Hawaii’s Big Island grew to 62½ square miles, prompting evacuation orders that forced thousands of residents out of their homes. Those orders were lifted Sunday evening, but authorities told residents to stay alert.

“This is the largest fire that we’ve had here in Hawaii County,” said Cyrus Johnasen, director of communications for Big Island Mayor Mitch Roth. “We would like folks to feel safe but not forget that this is an emergency.”

Two homes were destroyed in the fire, which was unlike the fires burning in the American West. Hawaiian fires tend to break out in large grasslands on the dry sides of the islands and are generally much smaller than mainland fires. Even though Hawaii has a wet, tropical climate that isn’t typically at risk from large fires, blazes could become more frequent as climate change-related weather patterns intensify.

Hawaii County Fire Chief Kazuo Todd said winds were expected to increase Monday.

“Our current wind forecast is showing wind patterns between 18 to 20 mph, with gusts up to 40 mph,” Todd said Sunday night, “and so while throughout the evening our crews will be working to build fire breaks with dozers and back burns, this temporary lift on the mandatory evacuation may have to be reinforced later on due to prevailing weather patterns.”

In Montana, a wildfire driven by wind destroyed up to 20 structures, including several homes, reported the Lake County Leader. A mandatory evacuation notice was issued Sunday morning as the so-called Boulder Fire jumped a highway. The fire grew Saturday night to more than one square mile, and was 0% contained.

Meanwhile, air quality alerts because of smoke remained in effect Monday for portions of the interior Northwest, Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming and the upper Midwest, the National Weather Service said.

Wildfires emit huge volumes of microscopic smoke particles that researchers say can be harmful if breathed in and lead to immediate and long-term health problems. Children, the elderly and people with underlying health conditions are particularly at risk.

Contributing: Jorge Ortiz and Elinor Aspegren, USA TODAY; The Associated Press

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